Top image: Still, ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001) dir. Richard kelly
Donnie Darko is an enigma in the sense that its message can be interpreted differently by the individual viewer. Set in the 1980s, the film taps into a number of intriguing themes and genre: from teenage angst to melancholic science fiction, through dark humour.
The brainchild of first time film writer and director Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko has become an iconic cult classic but not without strife. Upon the films initial release in 2001 it was considered a flop at the box office due to distribution and social factors. Thankfully, the eerie psychological thriller found its way to the screens of the desired audience, leaving its mark on the cinematic world and turning bunnies from cute to creepy in the blink of an eye.
Celebrating the film’s 15th anniversary, we spoke with the film’s Director of Cinematography Steven Poster and discussed his role in the creation of the film, its visual language and his reflections upon Donnie Darko fifteen years on.
Laura Page: Could you talk a bit about how you became involved with Donnie Darko?
Steven Poster: I got involved because a friend of mine, Thomas Newton Sigel, who is a wonderful director of photography was asked to do it by the producers but he was busy. I had talked to him recently and knew I was available, so he recommended me. I was sent the script, I read the script, fell in love with it and just said “I wanna do this movie.”
When I met with Richard [Kelly] he was 23 years-old and I noticed that he was very nervous. He was pacing back and forth and just appeared kind of uncomfortable, so I stopped and said “Let’s get something straight with you, from this point on you and I are the same age. My age and my experience has nothing to do with this meeting because I want you to feel comfortable and know that we would work as partners.” I also said that “I am not a director, I work with directors and I appreciate directors. You are the director and I am your cinematographer.” From that point on I got the job and it flowed for there. It was wonderful.
LP: What was it about the script that you found compelling?
SP: First of all it was a very tightly written script, it was not the typical script of a first time writer. It was an accomplished piece of work. Second of all the story, it was the first high school story I had seen in that dark vain, despite the fantastical stuff that’s in it, it takes a very direct, deep look at what it took to be that age and go to high school.
LP: In one of your previous interviews you said that you agreed to work on the film as long as you had a few days to examine the script with Richard first. What was that process like and did the script alter much?
SP: What I wanted to do was to get him alone in a room for enough time so that we could get to know each other, I really wanted to understand what the story was that he wanted to tell. That was the whole process for me. Because we were gonna go into, what was it? 24 days of deep intensity [filming] so if the two of us weren’t on the same page in terms of what the story was that we wanted to tell it could have been a disaster, so what I did was insisted that we get at least 4 days together alone. We read the script word by word, page by page, scene by scene, beat by beat and I made him tell me what it is he wanted the audience to get from each scene, and he did. We were able to make notes, I’m not a huge fan of story boards so we made notes and little sketches of where we wanted the camera at any given time. We really laid it out at that point, that was our objective and we came away with a very detailed set of notes in our scripts and it was actually so detailed that I in fact almost never had to refer to it again. What it did was give us a day by day plan of what we needed to get, we understood the time value of what it was going to take us to get what we needed, I mean Richard really didn’t because he didn’t have that experience but I knew at that point what it was going to take for us to accomplish this. It really gave us a road map.
LP: I was going to ask you how meticulous the planning was but you’ve already kind of addressed that. Did you have to change any of your plans as you started to shoot because of time or cost?
SP: They were very strict about keeping it to a twelve hour day, which was a really good discipline to have. We didn’t really change what we wanted to do, a few times we changed how we wanted to do it but what we knew from that process, oh and by the way went through that process on the other two films that we’ve done together as well. We knew from those days we spent together what it was that we needed to get to tell the story, how much could we walk away with at the end of a twelve hour day and still have enough to tell the story. If we got through that and we still had more time then we could get the gravy.
LP: The connection between the visuals and sounds are incredibly powerful, how closely related were these attributes during the creation?
SP: Pretty closely related. The famous scene that people talk about a lot was the opening of the school, it was a contentious set of circumstances. Richard wanted to do that from the bus into the school out to the back yard, back into the school and into the class room within one shot. We all knew that was unrealistic in that sense, the producers came to me and said “you have to tell him no.” I said “well my ammo is not to tell a director ‘no,’ my ammo is to tell a director what it will take, how they can do it and help the director make the decision of yes or no.” So I asked for a rehearsal, I said “ Let’s go to the school with the Steadicam operator on a Saturday and work the shot out.”
I knew that there was a piece of music that Richard wanted for that scene, I think it ultimately changed but he had the time of that piece of music to work with for the scene. So we all got there and I was standing by my car and Richard came over to me and said “ OK let’s go in” and I said “No Richard you go in first, I want you to go in with the Steadicam operator and work out the first part of this in the school. By the way here’s a stop watch.” And twenty minutes later he came out and said “OK it’ll be five shots.” That’s where we ended up.
“He came to us with these drawings of what the rabbit was going to be, we all freaked out, the production designer, the costume designer and myself all said “No, no, no, this is not right. This isn’t a rabbit, this is something else.””
LP: Are there any messages translated through props, costume and scenery that the audience may be unaware of?
SP: You know, I kinda don’t think so in the sense that it was very clear. For instance the rabbit was something that in prep we were kind of anticipating, you know it says in the script ‘a rabbit, a bunny, a rabbit.’ He came to us with these drawings of what the rabbit was going to be, we all freaked out, the production designer, the costume designer and myself all said “No, no, no, this is not right. This isn’t a rabbit, this is something else.” He insisted that he was absolutely right, from the beginning. That was the original drawing and that’s exactly what it ended up being. None of us believed in it, we thought this is going to be terrible, you can’t do something like this. But he insisted on it and in fact he was so right that I’ve never questioned those decisions of his at any given time. He has the ability to make those decisions and make them well and I go along with him now.
LP: It’s such a sinister and iconic image
SP: Ah, wonderful and horrible.
LP: The film has a memorable dark and grainy effect, could you tell me about the method and mentality behind this?
SP: Grain is part of my style, I like the texture and random movement of film grain. My own still photography uses that as an element of technique, so that was always part of my thinking anyway. Richard wanted to shoot the movie with anamorphic lenses, you know the difference between flat lenses, wide lenses and anamorphic lenses?
SP: Well very briefly there are different formats on the screen, there is the standard format which takes a regular lens to accomplish and it just photographs the scene one to one. That’s kind of what you see on you TV screen. Then there’s wide screen which was introduced as a cinema scope, super panoramic and all of those types of formats, but the way that this is accomplished is the taking lens on the camera has an element in it – I’m getting technical, if I’m getting too technical let me know – that squeezes the image and if you would just look at the print you would see very tall, skinny people, right. That puts it on film that actually squeezes the image into the frame and then in projection it’s expanded, so that’s how those wide screen movies are done for the most part. Anamorphic lenses are beautiful, they have a quality about them that’s almost magic, the way things go out of focus, the kind of white flares and streaking you may get, that might seem like flaws are really part of the artistic language of those types of lenses.
Richard wanted to shoot with Anamorphic lenses and I wasn’t opposed to that, but they’re not as sensitive as a regular lens, it takes twice as much light to use Anamorphic. The perception is that it’s slower to work that way, so once again one of the producers says to me “You have to tell him you can’t do that.” I kind of improvised this, I said “Well let me explain something to you, Kodak has just developed a new film stock that’s a very high speed film stock and if I use that it I could eliminate the deficit of needing more light, because the format of anamorphic is wide and narrow. I would be able to put lights on the ceiling in the living room, in the house and in the kitchen. It would actually make it easier to accomplish the lighting in this scene.” And they agreed but it was total BS, it did do those things but it wasn’t why I said that. In fact in using this film stock, for anybody technical was 800 ASA, so it was a very sensitive stock and very grainy but as I say that is part of my taste anyway, so I didn’t mind it. I got around the producers by telling them it was more cost effective to use the film that I wanted to use, the lens Richard wanted to use and the style we wanted to achieve so it accomplished quite a bit, It was actually a lot of fun to do it that way. It’s the only film made completely on that film stock
LP: What is your favourite scene?
SP: It might be the golf course scene, not the day time but the night time one with the rabbit. You know I have so many scenes that I really love in there but that one is definitely up there. I was in a position where we had this vast expanse where they’re riding the bicycles, that was the same night that we did the rabbit on the golf course scene because we only had one night out there. I was able to have one very large high light source that was about a quarter mile away or more but it was a big light source. Because I had the high speed film and I was able to put the light up in a place that allowed us to do the bikes riding through the park and then the scene with Donnie and the rabbit on the golf course. It had a very haunting singular effect to it by using just that light as back light, with a little bit of front fill on the rabbit and on Donnie, that’s one of the best.
I also really liked the scene in the bathroom where he’s [Donnie] confronting Frank and his [younger] sister’s standing there. That scene’s lighting was very delicate, if you look at it again you’ll see that when he’s confronting Frank before his sister shows up, it has one kind of lighting and when his sister appears it switches to another kind of lighting which was all done live. I had it designed so that when he was working with Frank he had his head down and I had a light coming from kind of underneath him. When his sister showed up he lifted his head and you no longer saw the light coming from below you saw the light coming from above, it kind of magically shifted him from one world to another.
LP: It went from his mind into reality within an instant.
SP: I like when you can do that, where you can use natural elements to tell the story or have an effect on the audience and it’s very subtle, most people would never ever see that but that’s my homage to be being able to do those kind of shots.
LP: It’s part of the magic isn’t it? Where you can alter those kinds of subtleties that change the audiences perception.
SP: Like I say I believe every moment of every frame informs the audience.
LP: What do you think makes Donnie Darko such an iconic cult film?
SP: I think there’s an honesty about how shitty high school really is. I don’t know any age of student that doesn’t really relate to that movie, I can go almost anywhere in the world and say “How many of you have seen Donnie Darko?” And all hands will go up and that’s fifteen years ago, it’s kind of remarkable that it has that staying power. It’s an honest film. It’s a very honest film.
LP: It feels very real and exposed, it goes deep into Donnie’s psyche.
SP: Jake was just fantastic, he’s a wonderful man and he gave everything he had to that movie and I know that he does with every other movie he does. He is just a consummate talent.
LP: Did you expect the film to receive the attention it has?
SP: I expected it to receive the attention much sooner than it did, we all knew – we being the inner circle, the production designers, Richard, myself and a few of the principal people all knew that there was something special here, but it was marketed very badly and it’s first release didn’t get very much attention but in it’s subsequent release it was very well received for years and years.
Donnie Darko will be screened at BFI Southbank in 4K plus a Q+A with director Richard kelly, buy tickets here.